Thursday, October 22, 2009

Paradigms of Sociality in a Digital World

In today’s digital world, we increasingly rely on social media to manage and maintain social connectivity. From Facebook to Twitter, we’re all connected and used to sharing—or over-sharing—details of our daily lives. Having dinner? Angry with someone or about your commute? At the gym? Witness something strange on the street? Having a miscarriage? People are using technology to share everything—and sometimes there are consequences to posting. People are also spending more time in digital worlds, such as Second Life, and more than one relationship has ended because a partner has been unable to disconnect or is guilty of a virtual affair.

We are more connected than ever, but does this extend beyond the digital arena? It seems that while we are willing to share the most intimate details of our lives online, we want to minimize our contact with others in the physical world. For example, text messaging is one means of avoiding conversations with others. (Know anyone who’s been dumped by a text message?) Are we moving toward a paradigm of public social avoidance with the rise of social media?

We actually take physical steps to reduce contact with each other. On my morning commute, the majority of riders have reduced opportunities for social contact through the use of iPods. I have blogged previously about how these devices can intrude upon one’s personal space in the public arena, but they serve a purpose: with earbuds firmly in place, the iPod user can “tune” out distractions—and each other: 
The immense storage capacity of iPod and its imitators offers at least the opportunity for total, uninterrupted isolation from one's surroundings for long -- extremely long -- periods of time. It is now possible to commute, to stroll, to shop, even to go to a Knicks game, without having to listen to another human being, or even the same song. There is no rewinding or CD-changing to permit the outside world to leak inside the cocoon. With a jukebox in your pocket, a suitable tune is always at the ready, no matter your mood. And if you have little white ear buds rammed in your ears, there is always an excuse not to acknowledge fellow humans. ''I'm busy right now,'' iPod users seem to say. ''I'll get back to you in 10,000 songs.'' 

I admit to being a "reading commuter"—a good book occupies the time it takes for me to get to and from work. Or so I tell myself. In truth, being engrossed in a good story means that I have a polite out in the event any of my fellow commuters decide to strike up a conversation—I can keep it short and polite and pointedly go back to my book. And it also means that I can ignore some of the more “colorful” characters who may cross my commuting path. But why do I engage in this means of social avoidance? After all, I am a prolific Facebook user and I have posted my share of “I’m making dinner” statuses—and given the size of my network, I’ve likely shared this information with people who could care less. But in public, like my fellow commuters, I’m not particularly open to sharing non-personal details.

Social avoidance is not a particularly new phenomenon. It is most famously been linked to the Kitty Genovese murder that took place in the 1960s in Kew Gardens, NY. Kitty’s screams for help went unacknowledged—none of her neighbors phoned the police despite potential evidence that they heard her cries. Social psychologists have studied this case extensively and attribute the inaction of Kitty’s neighbors to two possible reasons: pluralistic ignorance and diffusion of responsibility. The former refers to the private rejection of a norm by a group that remains inactive because they believe that the majority support this norm. The latter refers to inaction due to the belief that someone else will act—responsibility is not explicitly assigned to any single individual. Both reasons are linked to social avoidance.

The link between iPod users, reading commuters, and Kitty's neighbor's lies in the extent to which our social ability to “see” is hampered by these tools and strategies. Public safety officers have long encouraged runners and others to be aware of their surroundings for their own personal safety. The idea being that while you may be grooving out to Queen, Blink 182, or Fall Out Boy during your morning run, you could miss the sound of footsteps coming up behind you, or if you’re holding your breath as you travel with Stephen King through the macabre, you could may find that your wallet or Metrocard has abandoned you at some point during the journey. But beyond personal safety, are we losing our ability to see others. Remember our discussion about the invisible homeless? If we lose our ability our see each other, how does that affect our ability to read social biofeedback? Does this compromise our theory of mind—our ability to mentalize, to attribute beliefs and attributes to others? Theory of mind is integral to social life—it allows us to navigate and manage our social relationships because it allows us to read social biofeedback to understand others. But social interaction is important to the development of theory of mind. If we willingly limit opportunities for social interaction, what are the implications? What are your thoughts on why we would seek to limit physical interactions in the first place?

Follow up: The NYT City Room blog posted reader responses to the issue of cell phone abusers.

Technorati Tags: iPod, commuting, social avoidance, Kitty Genovese, sociality, Second Life, World of warcraft, invisibility, theory of mind, text messages, Facebook, Twitter


  1. Great post! For a somewhat different and fascinating take on the Kitty Genovese story, go to

  2. Wendy, thanks so much for sharing this link. It gives an interesting look at the ways in which details can be manipulated and what elements of a story tend to remain and get passed on thru the ages.

    If there really were only five or six "real" witnesses, then I'm interested in understanding the process by which the number gets inflated to 38. Is it that knowing that five or six people may have heard and not responded to her screams (or, potentially, scream—since according to the site, she couldn't have continued to scream with those injuries, and really, that makes sense, no?) led to thinking that if there were five or six who didn't respond then maybe there were more? Was the number inflated to protect the mentality of the "witnesses" (i.e., "It's okay if you didn't call because neither did 38 others.")? Or was it simply done to spur outrage—to typecast the residents of this hard town as what they are perceived to be: hard, cold, uncaring, unfriendly, etc?

    How does the community become the villain? I also have trouble understanding how there were no calls to the police—whether the number was five, six, or 38. As social creatures, we need each other to survive—we rely on protection from the "herd." So when it seems that the herd has been remiss, there has been a fracture in the social order.

    With these thoughts in mind, I'm wondering how media devices and social media contributes to this—if at all.

    Thanks for checking it!

  3. Update: By "this" I mean the decline in the ability or willingness of the "herd" to act.